It's trying time again for off-kilter Virginia

For 2nd year in row, Cavs go on a late-season skid

ACC notebook

March 07, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

In midseason a year ago, the Virginia Cavaliers blew a late, seven-point lead to the Maryland Terrapins, lost at home and went into a nose dive that ultimately cost them an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

One month ago, the Cavaliers staged a stunning comeback in the final nine minutes at Comcast Center, beat Maryland, 86-78, won their next game to improve their record to 14-7 - but have not won since.

And you thought things were ugly in Charlottesville last winter. That was merely a warm-up to the great collapse of 2003, which could culminate with the Cavaliers in the play-in game of next week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

With Wednesday's 90-73 loss at home to Georgia Tech, Virginia has dropped seven straight - the longest losing streak of the Pete Gillen era - to fall to 14-14. The Cavaliers probably won't even make the National Invitation Tournament this year. Last year's first-round NIT loss marked the seventh straight year Virginia has failed to win a postseason game.

"The season is not over. Hopefully we can turn it around, but we have lost momentum, no question," Gillen said. "We're very frustrated. We're upset. We're nowhere near where we want to be. Each game takes a little more out of you."

Virginia is pretty much out of air. And it's not only because the Cavs play lousy defense and are once again an abysmal road team. Gillen's players have let things slip off the court.

"We don't have a lack of talent. We have a lack of character," Gillen told the Roanoke Times.

Senior center Travis Watson, the supposed rock of the team with 1,077 career rebounds and 52 career double doubles, has become a recent symbol of what's wrong at Virginia.

Watson temporarily lost his starting job 10 days ago after missing a class, then skipping a disciplinary workout the next morning. Then, on the morning of Saturday's 73-59 loss at Florida State, Watson and teammates Elton Brown and Jermaine Harper were late for the team breakfast. Gillen benched Watson for the game's first 13 minutes and played Brown for only four minutes.

"It's not Travis Watson against the world. It's not Travis Watson causing the wins and losses," Gillen said. " ... I'm hoping he ends on a good note personally and our team regroups and people think of him in a fine light, because he's had a great career and he's a fine young man."

This comes on the heels of last month's indefinite suspension of sophomore point guard Keith Jenifer (Towson Catholic) on misdemeanor assault and battery charges, which have been dropped. Jenifer has missed eight games.

NIT for Wolfpack?

North Carolina State is guaranteed at least a 9-7 finish in conference play, which usually is good enough to get into the NCAA tournament. The 1999 Virginia team is the only ACC squad with nine league wins that failed to get an at-large bid.

But unless the fourth-place Wolfpack upsets first-place Wake Forest tomorrow, N.C. State stands a good chance of going to the NIT instead of the big tournament. The Wolfpack (16-10, 9-6), which has a Rating Percentage Index ranking of 68, has no one to blame but itself.

N.C. State has a 1-6 record against top 50 teams, with its Jan. 22 upset of Duke as its lone quality victory. It played a soft nonconference schedule, with victories over Mount St. Mary's, Northwestern, Coppin State, North Carolina A&T, Wofford and Fairleigh Dickinson. A 12-point home loss to UMass (RPI 205) and a 22-point loss at Temple (103) did further damage to N.C. State's credibility.

The Wolfpack is a thin team, being the only ACC member with five players averaging 30 or more minutes. And backup forward Levi Watkins is suffering from a groin injury incurred in Sunday's crushing, 68-65 loss to Maryland. It doesn't look good.

Nicholas and Dixon

Maryland senior guard Drew Nicholas has led the Terps in scoring all year and maintained his position among the top five scorers in the league. He is ranked in the ACC's top five in three-point shooting percentage (.410), free-throw percentage (.853) and three-pointers per game (2.27). Only point guard Steve Blake has more minutes than Nicholas (30.7 per game).

But Nicholas has grown weary of the comparisons between him and former reigning Final Four MVP Juan Dixon, whom Nicholas backed up for three years.

Nicholas also is tired of the perception that he is not Dixon-like in the clutch. Think of his 3-for-10 shooting and two late missed free throws in a recent close loss at Duke or other big games in which Nicholas has been off - 3-for-11 in an overtime loss to Indiana, 5-for-15 in a loss to Florida, 4-for-14 in a loss to Wake Forest.

However, Nicholas made a three-pointer with 1.5 seconds left to lift Maryland to its 68-65 victory at N.C. State on Sunday, putting the Terps into a position to take the No. 1 seed in next week's ACC tournament, which Maryland could achieve with a win Sunday at Virginia coupled with a victory by the Wolfpack over Wake Forest tomorrow.

"You have to want the ball in that situation. Of course I want the ball. If you don't, why are you on the court?" he said. "I also understand that I could [make a game-winner] five more times, and I'm still not Juan Dixon. Let me be Drew Nicholas and assess the way I play, not by the way Juan Dixon played. Let it be."

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